BluRay/DVD Reviews

(MICKEY SPILLANE’S) MIKE HAMMER

By • Jan 15th, 2012 •

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WHERE’S VELDA?

The complete, two-season, 78-episode collection is certainly an exciting event. At first there appeared to be more wrong with it than there was right with it, but for Mike Hammer completists it would, under any circumstances, represent a wonderful unearthing from the treasure troves of early TV.

Initially it felt like a low-rent series, shot quickly, with few takes and insufficient coverage. In the premiere episode – ‘The High Cost of Dying’ – which should be a showcase for what the series is capable of, one of the key actresses (Lynn Allen) flubbed her lines a few times, but rather than go for another take, she and Darren McGavin just kept on gamely plugging away. The dialogue felt clumsily faux-noir (McGavin’s voice over narration sounded as if he was rehearsing for KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, the horror-noir series which would come his way two decades later). McGavin himself, giving it his best, still seldom radiated the sympathetic notes he was capable of, at least not in that opening episode. And the score was a bit clunky, often mickey-mousing the action. But most distressing of all was the absence of Velda. What Mike Hammer film or series would be complete without her? I hoped that she would show up in the second season, but no such luck.

I then ventured into the second season, to see how the production quality had progressed. The title I chose was ‘”Requiem For a Sucker”. Sounded good, but was pretty much the same quality of the first season premiere. Flaccid and forgettable.

And yet there were nice elements too. Despite a disclaimer refrain about the quality of the materials used, the image was quite nice. There were occasional sound drop-outs, but they barely broke the pace.

Tight as the budgets must have been, the productions managed to fit in nice location work around New York City, as well as in upstate locales, etc., particularly effective as it transported me back to a world over fifty years gone.

Directors tended to be TV journeymen, revolving to keep the schedule going. Boris Sagal worked on many TV series over the years, including Rod Taylor’s ‘Hong Kong,’ which has yet to surface, and boasts one of the most violent fight scenes ever created for the tube (in the episode called ‘Colonel Cat’). But probably Sagal’s ticket to immortality was 1971’s THE OMEGA MAN with Charlton Heston, a camp classic version of Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend.’

The box covers boast about guest stars such as Angie Dickinson, Barbara Bain, Robert Vaughn, Hershel Bernardi, and DeForest Kelley, but overlook such 50s ‘B’ icons as Gloria Talbot, Joan Taylor, Robert Clarke, Allison Hayes, Yvette Vickers, Madlyn Rhue, Tom Neal, Dorothy Provine, and Abby Dalton.

Now Yvette Vickers, who was barely an actress but quite a looker, appeared in some cheapo delights like ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES. She also posed for Playboy, quite wonderfully. Today, sadly, and from today onward, she’ll be remembered for her demise, up in the Hollywood hills, lying on the floor while a nearby standing heater cooked the juices out of her for a year before her mummified body was discovered. Naturally I had to skip to this episode, partially out of morbid curiosity, but also because I liked her looks back in the day.

Well, it’s a good thing I did. ‘Scar and Garter’ was a really fun episode. It didn’t have as much of a rushed feeling, the location manager did a great job securing a quirky, ‘B’-level SUNSET BOULEVARD location, and the script was loaded with mouth-dropping surprises and details. The director of this one was Lawrence Dobkin, who had acted in countless TV shows (as well as features such as THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) and directed quite a few episodics. I wondered if, knowing the grueling schedule they were up against, the MIKE HAMMER staff & crew didn’t decide to pull a John Ford – two for you, churned out passionlessly, then one for us, treated with care on all levels. Because this one was awfully good, and it was probably even more impressive in ’58.

And Yvette? Well, acting may not have been one of her strengths, but she sure looked great.

I decided that since I’d been third time lucky, maybe I should stay in the game a little longer. This time I went for Allison Hayes in “Mere Maid”, directed by our old friend Boris Sagal, who hadn’t done well by the material in the pilot episode…or maybe it was the material that hadn’t done well by him. But this time we had a strong script with a great first act. Hammer is taking a weekend off upstate at a picturesque lake, and a flirty little mermaid lures him over to her side of the pond where all the wealthy weekenders are hanging out. The plot breaks loose from there, and emotions run pretty wild. Hammer gets to smooch up another doll, and figures out the sly manipulations behind a murder. There’s an obviously staged climactic fist-fight, but otherwise it’s a solid episode, and Ms. Hayes wasn’t at all bad.

I couldn’t stop now. I had to have a gander at Gloria Talbott. Who can ever forget her in I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, with her striking, pointed features… Well she’s lovely in this one, too (aged 27), and it’s a fine supporting cast. James Westerfield as a corrupt DA was cut out of the M. Emmet Walsh mold, and he’s really solid, as are H.M Wynant as Deputy Moran and Rusty Lane as Sheriff Al Miller. The cinematography is the best yet, with rich blacks and whites, and the narrative generates real fear about Hammer’s safety when he butts heads with purveyors of small town corruption. There was that name again – Boris Sagal. I guess I had to cut the guy a break. Two for three. That’s a good deal in my book.

“Look at the Old Man Go” was next on my hit list. I was captivated from the get-go as it was filmed in my upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood. I’d forgotten why I chose it until I realized that I’d been looking at a very young Angie Dickinson (also aged 27) for a few minutes without even recognizing her. And while she’s good in the episode, and changes flashy outfits several times, the plot was far too convoluted for my nighttime viewing brain. At one point, one of the key players says she can’t follow what’s happening anymore. Amen. And yet it starts off wild like a good noir should, and it’s a plenty fun episode. Reminded me of noirs like THE BIG SLEEP, the ones that keep you involved but in the end it isn’t at all clear what just went down.

As you can imagine, in its attempt to be true to Spillane’s immortal protagonist, there are healthy doses of macho machinations and compromised women in trouble. The general depiction of women in the series is an amusing sign of the accepted behavior and social attitudes of the times, but also it’s as Spillane might have wished it. He so despised KISS ME DEADLY for tampering with his hero. This series tries a bit harder to adhere to the author’s tenets. No matter how rough and chauvinistic Mike was, he did have ethics and often upbraided his clients for asking him to do things that were ethically inappropriate. McGavin definitely portrays that guy. Ralph Meeker’s Hammer wouldn’t have given unethical behavior a second thought.

But I’d love to know what the heck happened to Velda?

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2 Responses »

  1. I love McGavin’s work but he’s wrong as Hammer. Keach and Meeker did the character justice despite Spillane’s dislike of KMD.

  2. My opinion is that Darren McGavin brought to this role the right amount of cynicism, bitter humor and a still dogged persverence for justice. Ralph Meeker’s performance was one dimensional and lacked irony and Stacey Keach was too bombastic. In my own book TV Noir I discuss Mcgavin and these other actors in greater detail. Thanks for letting me express this opinion.

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